A Brief History of Women, 59E59

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By guest critic Steven Strauss

If the powers-that-be At New York’s Brits Off Broadway were to name a resident playwright, Alan Ayckbourn would surely take the crown. 

I can’t remember the last time he didn’t contribute a new work to this annual festival, which makes sense given his lifelong absurd productivity; after 79 years on Earth, he’s believed to have 81 plays to his name. After the last one is staged — in who knows how many years — the historical record will probably place him as the torchbearer of Noel Coward’s baton, chronicling the mores of comfortable Brits with comedic resonance. And yet much like Neil Simon, his closest American counterpart, his absurd productivity cannot be so reductively defined as being solely absurdist; the persona of his work is not so singular. All three men have written plays that fall far outside the purview of how their oeuvres are stereotypically portrayed. 

This long-winded contextualization is important in introducing Ayckbourn’s legacy before delving into his latest, A Brief History of Women — which premiered last year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England — because it helps explain many dimensions of its existence. Since he wrote through so much of the 20th century, he’d seem to be an acceptable choice to tackle the title’s stated mission: to provide a brief history of women throughout the 20th century. In four loosely-connected chronological vignettes, each set 20 years apart (the first in 1925, the last in 1985), he charts the life of one ordinary man and the various extraordinary women that influenced it. The individual parts could almost be considered standalone short plays…if they could satisfyingly stand on their own. 

Overcoming the regressive optics of yet another dude tackling the history of women would’ve required truly transcendent writing, especially since, for the gazillionth time, a man is yet again the story’s focal point, with women coming and going around him. The argument could be made that he’s rarely the focus. Rather, he’s merely a generic foil for the far more interesting women surrounding him, which is perhaps a dramaturgical suggestion that women couldn’t take center stage back in the day? 

But that’s a stretch. It’s 2018. We know this history already, does hearing it again justify basically repeating it? 

And when dealing with a self-evidently important subject — to his credit, Ayckbourn engages in some intersectionality; his view of gender history also includes issues of class — I’m not sure the light style he deploys here is capable of sufficiently excavating the depth of his chosen topics. Unlike in some of his other texts, here he restrains his signature frothy farce, never allowing it to overwhelm the heartfelt sensitivity of his often-keenly observant eye. But there’s a broadness to the comedy that feels at odds with the seriousness of his premise’s aspirations, betraying its importance.

Even though he lived through so many of these eras, his dependence on such an old-fashioned dramaturgical structure forsakes any attempts at shedding much-needed new light on these age-old problems. Though he probably thought he was trying to correct the wrongs he saw theatre commit throughout the years, can anyone do so while relying on such traditional forms of drama? There’s no progressivism here, no passion, no subversion of theatrical norms. If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse, you can’t put it out from inside the house…which is doubly true if that house is the history of theatre you personally helped build, even if you’re not necessarily responsible for its sins.

Ayckbourn also directs the production, diminishing the multiplicity of voices that makes most theatre sing. It’s perhaps the most collaborative of art forms, and condensing two of its strongest authorial voices — the playwright and the director — into one often simplifies the proceedings into a dull monotony (it’s also the reason I’ve rested much of the play AND production’s shortcomings on his shoulders. The cast does what they can with inferior material). I have a hard time believing the play wouldn’t have been better served if helmed by one of the countless, absurdly talented female directors working today. Or, for that matter, written by one.   

Would A Brief History of Women have ever seen the light of day if Alan Ayckbourn wasn’t Alan Ayckbourn, legacy and all? No aspect of the production is good enough to change my answer: probably not.

A Brief History of Women runs through 27 May.

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